High school: Male athletes of the year Burton and Bennett
By Mike London
SALISBURY — Salisbury graduate Roarke Burton and East Rowan graduate Christian Bennett never competed against each other, but together, they had six sports covered.
Burton was Rowan County Tennis Player of the Year and shared Rowan County Swimmer of the Year honors with South Rowan’s Blaise Bumgarner. Burton also competed well in cross country.
Bennett was Rowan County Defensive Player of the Year for football, was one of the county’s best in track and field and was the consummate role player in basketball.
While they participated in separate sports, there was common ground for Burton and Bennett. They were champions who competed at the state level. They were example-setters. They were mature and disciplined leaders for their teams. They were excellent, college-bound students, maintaining stellar GPAs despite athletic workloads that never took a break.
For the 2018-19 school year, Burton and Bennett share the Darrell Misenheimer Award, which honors Rowan’s best male athlete.
The late Misenheimer’s performance in the 1974-75 school year for East Rowan was one of the strongest ever recorded. He was a Shrine Bowl football player, the record-setting Western North Carolina High School Activities Association shot put champion and the WNCHSAA wrestling runner-up. The award is sponsored by Jeff Chapman and the company he represents — Arsenal Strength.
This is the first time there have been co-male athletes of the year for the county since 1998 when North Rowan phenom Greg Yeldell and East Rowan four-sport standout Nick Heard shared the honor.
Bennett is the first Mustang chosen for athlete of the year by the Post since Cal Hayes Jr. in 2002. Salisbury has produced a number of recent winners. The latest was Clint Comadoll in 2014.
Burton’s athletic year started in the fall of 2018 with cross country.
He was Salisbury’s second-best runner. He clocked 19:25 at Dan Nicholas Park for 18th place in the Rowan County Championships. His personal best is 19:11.
While cross country was definitely his third-best sport, Burton doesn’t do anything halfway.
“At first, cross county was just a means of getting in shape for tennis and swimming, but the way it seems to be for me is that once I commit to something, I’m all in,” Burton said. “I gave everything I had at every meet.”
Salisbury coach Tim Pittman appreciated Burton’s effort in a sport where he wasn’t a natural. Burton just drove himself to be better than most.
“He always pushed himself and his teammates to reach their full potential,” Pittman said. “Athlete of the Year is well-deserved for him. That’s a very hard-working student-athlete.”
Swimming, a sport that peaks in January and February, was next for Burton.
He has a difficult time deciding if his favorite sport is swimming or tennis. He’s equally proficient in both. In both sports, he was able to compete statewide in 2A.
In the Rowan County Championships held at the J.F. Hurley YMCA in late January, Burton won the 50 and 100 freestyle races and swam legs on Salisbury’s winning 400 relay team and second-place 200 medley relay team.
Burton won the 50 and 100 in the Central Carolina Conference Championships and anchored a winning 400 free relay.
“But it was really hard to get acclimated when I make that transition from cross country to swimming,” Burton said. “It’s a very different kind of conditioning that’s needed for swimming.”
At the regional level, Burton was the champion in the 100 and runner-up in the 50.
In the 1A/2A State Championships, Burton placed third in the 100 (47.75 seconds) and fifth in the 50 (21.67 seconds). His times in the state as a junior had been 50.72 and 23.13. He made exciting strides as a senior.
“The state meet was an awe-inspiring day, a once-in-a-lifetime day,” Burton said. “I dropped more than a second off my regional time in the 100, and that was pretty amazing. I competed at a high level against great, year-round swimmers. I knew this was my last meet, and I didn’t hold anything back. Great competition pushed me.”
Burton was a club swimmer in middle school. That experience helped him in high school even after he was no longer a swimming specialist. He swam on his own quite a bit to prepare for his senior season. Those extra hours paid off.
“I can’t tell you how much we’re going to miss Roarke,” Salisbury swimming coach Ryan Starrett said. “Guys with that combination of athleticism and character, guys who have their heads on straight and are that well-rounded, they’re just hard to come by. When they graduate, it leaves a big void on your team.”
Starrett emphasized that what Burton accomplished in swimming for someone who was basically a seasonal swimmer was remarkable.
“He’s talented, but he never took it for granted that he was good, and always worked extra hard to be the best he could be,” Starrett said. “He took pride in excelling and for someone who swims three months a year, he put up incredible times. At the end of our season, he could have gone to a lot of Division I coaches and gotten scholarship money to swim for them.”
Burton’s goal coming into his senior season was to swim the 100 in 49 seconds, but he wound up breaking 48. That improvement came from extending himself in tough practices.
“Guys would wonder why I was pushing them so hard in practice, and I’d tell them it was because Roarke had big goals, and they should have them too,” Starrett said.
Burton is perhaps best-known for his work in the spring in tennis because he played No. 1 singles and No. 1 or No. 2 doubles for a terrific team (22-1) that again ruled a very strong league and finished as 2A state runner-up.
Few 2A tennis squads can match Salisbury’s depth, but there are a lot of schools that have one tremendous player. Burton took them on.
“My skills have improved a lot over the years, but there still are humbling experiences when you play No. 1,” Burton said. “Playing against Newton-Conover’s Brann Reid (a rising senior who has won three straight state individual titles) was humbling because his strokes were on a totally different level. But there was never a time when I wasn’t happy to lead my team. I really liked this team, and we went a very long way.”
Burton posted an 18-3 record in singles. Playing with a variety of doubles partners, usually Jander Rodas-Palacios or Sean Archer, Burton was almost always a winner. He teamed with Archer to qualify for the state individual tournament.
“Roarke always did whatever we needed him to do,” Salisbury coach Milton Griffith said. “He listens. He’s respectful. He played against great players, some of the best in the state, but he never gave up. There were some scores when it may have looked like he was out of a match, but there was no one that he didn’t battle. He’s always going to battle.”
Burton won his final high school singles match on the day that Salisbury lost 5-4 to Clinton in the dual team state final, but he fell in doubles.
Coming so close to winning the Hornets’ first dual team state title since 1993 was deflating, but Burton exits knowing he took his best shot.
“When Roarke makes up his mind to be good at something, he puts the time in that it takes,” Griffith said. “He played a lot of tennis in the summer. He worked hard at all three of his sports and never cheated any of them. He’s dedicated. If there’s one word that describes him best, it’s dedicated.”
On top of his athletic success, Burton, who is headed to UNC as a regular student and likely will pursue a medical career, was one of the Post’s all-county scholars.
“I was always able to a balance the athletic side of things with academics,” Burton said. “I just had to budget my time and stay disciplined.”
Bennett, who is headed to Catawba to play linebacker for the football team, was a two-way terror in the fall for the Mustangs.
For four varsity seasons, he stood out at linebacker.
There are a lot of 220-pound guys and there are a lot of guys who can run, but there aren’t a lot of 220-pound guys who can run. Bennett had a size/speed combination that made him special on defense. He was a sideline-t0-sideline tackler, and he could deliver a hit when he got there.
“I’m most proud that I played hard for four years as hard as I could and I was still able to finish strong,” Bennett said. “There were a lot of good football moments.”
Bennett’s football role was different as a senior, as he was a two-way player. Besides accounting for 19 tackles for loss, four sacks and three interceptions, he carried the ball enough to rush for more than 500 yards. He scored 11 touchdowns, 10 of them on offense.
“We’d been a two-platoon program, but we just didn’t have the kind of depth this year that we’d like to have,” East coach John Fitz said. “We didn’t have any choice but to play some of our best guys both ways.”
Fitz said Bennett’s offensive effort against North Stanly was memorable.
“We relied on him mostly in short-yardage situations, ball-control situations to move the chains,” Fitz said. “North Stanly had an excellent team, but we won that game because they just couldn’t get Christian on the ground. In the fourth quarter, we kept the ball like 9 minutes, 30 seconds, and they couldn’t get the ball back because Christian kept getting first downs. I’m not saying he’s a Division I running back, but he’s a guy who is never afraid to put his head down and get every yard he can.”
While he was a star in the fall, Bennett embraced a more modest role in the winter for East Rowan’s basketball team.
“It’s funny because in middle school I was always a double-digit scorer and rebounder,” Bennett said. “But as the years went by and I got stronger, I lost my shooting touch a little bit. So in basketball, I just tried to hustle and rebound and play tough defense.”
When Bennett scored nine points against Carson as a senior, he matched his career high, but East coach Kurt Misenheimer said he’s one of those guys who can’t be measured by the scorebook.
“I could go on for a few days about how good his character is, how good a student-athlete he is, how good a person he is,” Misenheimer said. “He’s one of those special student-athletes who makes you want to work hard as a coach.”
At a shade under 6 feet, Bennett was dramatically undersized for his primary role as a rebounder, but he used muscle, energy and experience to hold his own.
“I remember we were in a tough overtime game with Central Cabarrus, early in the season, right after he’d come to basketball from football, and I took Christian out of the game and subbed a freshman for him,” Misenheimer said. “When he sat down, I went over to explain to Christian, but I didn’t have to. He said, ‘Coach, I get it. I just want to win.’ That was Christian in a nutshell. He’s a winner. He’s a good person who makes everyone around him better. He’s mature. He looks mature, he talks mature, and he acts that way.”
Fitz had another opportunity to coach Bennett in track and field in the spring. Bennett was versatile. His strength and explosive power made him a beast in the throws (shot put and discus), but he also helped the Mustangs in the sprints.
“College football coaches would come in on recruiting trips, and I’d tell them we used Christian for a leg in the 4×100,” Fitz said. “That’s when they’d get big-eyed. You don’t see 220-pound guys in the sprints. Guys who are 220 just don’t do that, but he’s athletic enough to hand off a baton and to take one.”
Bennett agreed that his sprinting often created a stir.
“Guys would look at me when we were getting ready for a relay and say, ‘Man, you’re running in this? You’re big!’ But then I would run with them — or faster than them.”
At different times during his career, Bennett sprinted in the 100, 200, 4×100 and 4×400.
“And it’s not like everyone is jumping in there to run the 400,” Fitz said. “But he could run the curves.”
While he created a buzz in the sprints, Bennett competed at a high level in the throws.
He won Rowan County, North Piedmont Conference and 3A Midwest Regional championships in the discus as a senior and added the NPC crown in the shot put.
He was voted the NPC’s Field Athlete of the Year.
He finished his high school career with a sixth-place finish in the discus (148 feet, 4 inches) in the 3A State Championships.
“The biggest thing that separates Christian is he really wants to be good,” Fitz said. “A lot of people tell you they want to be good, but he makes the extra effort that it takes. He’s a leader-type kid, and he’s a kid who always wanted to know how he could help his team — not how he could help Christian. He’s gifted physically, he’s disciplined, and he made himself better each year.”
Bennett has an older brother (former East running back Calvin Edwards) who played football at Lenoir-Rhyne.
That provided a blueprint for success. He followed it.
“Christian aways was a little different because he arrived at East with a plan and a goal to play college athletics,” Fitz said. “He knew what it was going to take to play in college, and he knew how to get where he wanted to go. He knew it all had to start in the classroom by making good grades. Everything he ever did at East was toward reaching his goal of playing in college.”
Asked about academics, Bennett grinned and said his favorite class at East was weight lifting, but he was being modest. He was a regular on the honor roll. He made himself recruitable.
“I’ve been blessed,” Bennett said. “Playing three sports always kept me busy and always kept me working. And competing hard in three sports put me in position for recognition. It’s an honor to be one of the athletes of the year for the county.”